KANSAS CITY, Mo. — THE EXIT INTERVIEW: WICHITA STATE (35-1, 18-0 Missouri Valley)
What went right: Would you believe everything? Well, almost everything. The Shockers (deep breath) became the first Division I men’s basketball squad to go unbeaten in the regular season since Saint Joseph’s in 2004 and the first team to run through the Missouri Valley Conference without a loss since Bradley in 1986 and …
… (another deep breath) they won the school’s first Valley postseason tournament since 1987 and were the first MVC team to enter the NCAA Tournament unbeaten since Indiana State in 1979 … annnnnnd …
… (deep breath again) … were the first Division I team ever, and we mean ever, to open a single season with 35 straight victories.
So there will be banners, kids. Oh, yeah.
And there were stars, too. Sophomore point guard Fred VanVleet (11.9 ppg, 5.4 apg) was the MVC’s Larry Bird Player of the Year in his first full year as a starter, and deservedly so, after generally shining on both ends of the floor. Off-guard Ron Baker (13.1 ppg, 68 threes) was the perfect running mate and a capable backup at the point, when necessary, while third guard Tekele Cotton (10.3 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 1.4 spg) showed flashes of confidence shooting the ball to match his defensive intensity. And the bigger the game, the bigger 6-foot-8 forward Cleanthony Early (16.4 ppg, 5.9 rpg) played, capping his senior season by averaging 27.0 points and seven boards in the NCAA tourney.
What went wrong: The ending. After a Cinderella run to the Final Four as a 9 seed in 2013, the Shockers were unable to repeat the journey as a 1 seed in 2014. A 78-76 loss to eighth-seeded Kentucky (the preseason No. 1, ironically) in the third round at St. Louis brought the joy ride to a sudden, screeching halt. As Wichita picked up wins and headlines and magazine covers, the haters came out of the woodwork, too, accusing coach Gregg Marshall’s team of fattening up on a mid-major league having a down year. A setback to a young, gifted, but 10-loss Kentucky bunch and a tourney run that didn’t even reach the Sweet 16 won’t silence those critics at all.
High point: Cutting down the nets at Arch Madness on March 9. The Shockers hadn’t won the Valley tournament since it moved to St. Louis as a neutral-site event in 1991. They’d come close under Marshall — painfully close, too, losing two title games — over the previous five years, but a team such as Northern Iowa or Creighton (usually Creighton) always managed to be in the way. Not this time. Wichita dominated the weekend like it had dominated the regular season, winning three tourney games by an average of 20.3 points and moving to 34-0 in the process — becoming the first Division I team to reach 34-0 since UNLV in 1991.
Low point: The ending (reprise). Skeptics pointed to the Shockers’ small cadre of top 50 RPI wins heading into the tourney (three) as cause for doubt, and the selection committee must have agreed, sticking Wichita with a Bracketville path that would require wins over Kentucky, Louisville and, potentially, Michigan, just to advance to the Final Four. The NCAA tourney is about matchups, and while Kentucky’s excellent frontcourt proved challenging to the Shox’s smaller counterparts on the blocks, it was the Wildcats’ tall but mercurial backcourt of the Harrison twins that proved to be the big surprise. The 6-6 freshman duo accounted for 39 points and harassed the 5-11 VanVleet into foul trouble while denying him good looks along the perimeter. An unusually tall, unusually gifted backcourt was a potential matchup problem for VanVleet and the 6-2 Cotton, one that Big Blue wasted no time exploiting.
Key pieces expected back: VanVleet, Baker, Cotton, 6-7 forward Darius Carter (7.9 ppg).
Who’s out the door (or expected to be): Early, 6-8 forward Chadrack Lufile (5.9 ppg, 5.0 rpg), 6-9 forward/center Kadeem Coleby (2.6 ppg, 1.3 bpg), 6-6 swingman Nick Wiggins (5.1 ppg) and associate head coach Chris Jans (head coach, Bowling Green).
Things to work on: A frontcourt scorer (or two) who can replicate (or come close to) Early’s underrated production has to be locked down. And a backup point guard to push and and/or occasionally spell VanVleet (31.7 mpg) is critical. Plan A had to be scrapped this past fall when incoming freshman D.J. Bowles was diagnosed with a heart condition; Plan B was Baker; and there didn’t seem to be much of a Plan C.
Season grade: A-. The regular season, a Division I-record 35-0, speaks for itself. And while wire-to-wire, 1976-Hoosiers-style perfection probably wasn’t in the cards, realistically, the Shockers feel — and rightly so — that the NCAA journey ended several games too soon. While this was clearly Marshall’s best season and best backcourt, it might not even have been his best Shockers team, talent-wise, and a true post scorer to partner with Early never quite materialized.
Forecast for 2014-15: Sunny. While the Valley will almost certainly be improved next season, the Shockers remain the class of the loop, the baddest cat on the block, and the annual favorite to win the league and tournament titles. Wichita is to the MVC now what Gonzaga is in the West Coast Conference and Butler was in the Horizon: the singular, flagship program of the circuit. It’s hard not to picture them in the Top 25, assuming a new crop of bigs can be found, but 18-0 in the Valley will be an awfully, awfully hard act to follow. Still, as long as Marshall’s around and the core of the roster and support staff remain intact, this program isn’t going anywhere.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter at @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.